Letter 421a

421a. Hegel to Schelling in Munich: Jena, 23 February 1807 [*]

Jena, 23 February 1807

. . . It was with the greatest interest that I read your news about a new, loftier side of the science of physics. [1] In the meantime, I have been more successful in gathering my own thoughts concerning it — at least in a general sense — than in successfully performing the experiments themselves.

With respect to the latter, I found that I have not yet acquired the necessary steadiness of hand, and even when an experiment seemed to be successful, others were contradictory even under the same conditions, and sometimes the pendulum movement itself came about even without the required conditions, which then rendered the successful attempts suspect as having been merely a result of my unsteady hand. I probably need some lessons from one of you experienced experimenters — if I otherwise even have the capacity for these things, as I do hope — to be sure I have excluded mechanical factors — which did, I believe, play a role in the experiment with the water hammer — as well as accidental factors. —

Otherwise I do recall observing a general experiment with such pendulum movements conducted by a French emigré about twelve years ago, though with a variation that made it more consistently reproducible in public [2] — A golden spherical ring suspended on a strand of hair, in a glass partially filled with water, began to sway visibly without the finger holding it moving even slightly, the swaying becoming so strong that the ring knocked against the side of the glass, and as regularly as was the time on the clock! —

If the latter were indeed demonstrable, what a connection it would attest between the blind instinct of temporal division, which seems arbitrary, and nature! What could be more welcome for Ritter’s studies of temporal periods?

That said, however, his experiments do occasionally become transcendent such that others are unable to follow, and he will find it difficult to convince other physicists with respect to the magnetic needle composed of two metals of the sort you adduce in the essay contra Fichte; [3] at least from what I hear, there is still considerable resistance to these things. —

With respect to his experiments with siderism, [4] I am glad to hear that he seems to have come up with some way to eliminate the element of chance that so easily enters into these experiments — for without such I cannot venture to say any of the experiments have really succeeded for me [5] — admittedly I have been able to experiment only with lead cubes, coins, etc. — and not yet with gold or silver cubes.

I piqued Goethe’s curiosity concerning these things, who has occasionally had his fun with it all.


[*] Sources: Briefe von und an Hegel, ed. Karl Hegel, vol. 1, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Werke, ed. Ph. Marheineke et al., vol. 9:1 (Leipzig 1887), 93–94; Fuhrmans 3:411–12. See Schelling’s next letter to Hegel from Munich, 22 March 1807 (letter 421b). Back.

[1] See Schelling’s letter to Hegel on 11 January 1807 (letter 420a).

Concerning the episode involving the alleged dowser Francesco Campetti, see

This topic recurs in letters up to the spring of 1808. Back.

[2] Hegel was working as a private tutor in a family in Bern, Switzerland, at the time. Back.

[3] The reference is to Schelling’s Darlegung des wahren Verhältnisses der Naturphilosophie zu der verbesserten Fichte’schen Lehre. Eine Erläuterungsschrift der ersten von F. W. J. Schelling (Tübingen 1806) (Sämmtliche Werke 7:3–126; see also Adalbert Friedrich Marcus’s letter to Schelling on 16 October 1806 [letter 417f], note 4), here 138–39:

Whether, by the way, the philosophy of nature has always prophesied only after the fact, as Herr Fichte claims, let connoisseurs decide — upright, conscientious connoisseurs. It admittedly constitutes no prophecy in the Fichtean sense, e.g., during a time when physicists understood magnetism solely as the characteristic of a single metal by explaining traces of such in several other metals as being the result merely of their adulteration by parts of precisely the same metal, that the consistent universality of the philosophy of nature and magnetism as a necessary category of matter was demonstrated — and that this assertion was then corrected by reviewers and others, and quite properly so, by experience itself, which demonstrated that magnetism is by no means a universal characteristic of bodies — until then, several years later, a French physicist, knowing nothing about that particular assertion, genuinely determined through experiments that no rigid body in nature is non-magnetic.

Or that the author [Schelling], in his aphorisms on philosophy (in the section “Erklärung” [with reference to “Darstellung meines Systems der Philosophie”], Zeitschrift für spekulative Phyisk II [1801] 2:1–127, here 52, § 75; Sämmtliche Werke 4:156) presents the universal postulate: “Two qualitatively different bodies can be viewed as two sides of a magnet, all the more so the greater their relative difference is,” and that later a German natural scientist [Ritter] made a true magnet needle out of silver and zinc that faithfully indicated the poles — neither, however, does this yet constitute a demonstration that the miracle Herr Fichte considers impossible is indeed possible; for quite apart from the fact that the author did genuinely exist when he presented this postulate, he would have had to predict not merely this truth of the postualte itself, but also the experiment if — Herr Fichte was to be expected to believe him! Back.

[4] From Greek σιδηρος, sideros, “iron.” Ritter’s new periodical bore the title Siderismus, ed. by J. W. Ritter, vol. 1, no. 1 (Tübingen 1808). Back.

[5] The Bavarian commission charged with investigating the integrity of Ritter’s findings was troubled by the same lack of objective controls in his experiments. Back.

Translation © 2018 Doug Stott